By Charlie Melk
Devouring any form of coverage from the Dodge Tour de Georgia ravenously this
week has taken me back—back to the auspicious days when we were all positive
that a major international stage race in the United States would firmly
establish itself within the pantheon of legendary stage races found across the
pond . . . the Coors Classic days, the Tour de Trump days, the Tour DuPont
days. All of these races formed the basis of my love for this sport, which in
turn found its genesis in the mid ‘80’s and continues unabated to this very day.
Within each of these races existed the potential for a beginning—the dawning
of something big for the sport of cycling in the United States. Every tradition
needs a beginning, right? Instead, though, one by one, each of these races
folded. If you were like me, however, you always held out hope that another
version of these storied races would rise from the ashes and if not take the
place of its forbears, at least stand on its own as an example of what is
possible for the development of this sport in the United States—the 4th ranked
cycling nation in the world, according to the UCI.
Well, even though the Dodge Tour de Georgia isn’t a brand new race, it has,
in the past year, made leaps and bounds toward providing us with that elusive
North American stage race that has been missing in the hearts and minds of
American cycling fans for the better part of a decade, something I can’t really
say that it did for me last year. The race itself was in doubt until just a few
months ago, but it transcended itself in this year’s edition to provide us with
some of the greatest stage racing seen on American soil since 1996.
The participation of Lance Armstrong no doubt provided much needed backing to
this fledgling race—when the winner of the past five editions of the Tour de
France agrees to sign on, the whole game changes. The riders make the race, and
with all due respect to the formidable U.S. domestic contingent, Lance’s
participation was the catalyst for greatness that had been missing in Georgia
George Hincapie before Stage 7. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
Another clear draw to this year’s edition of the race was the participation
of the best field sprinter of his generation, Mario Cipollini, with his Domina
Vacanze squad. Il Re Leone himself said that he was interested in giving the
Dodge Tour de Georgia a shot when he found out that Lance would be
participating. Despite a forgettable first stage, in which he 1.) was
misinformed as to the number of finishing circuits, 2.) found said finishing
circuits too difficult to contest the sprint, or 3.) was still adjusting to the
high heat and humidity, with a bit of jet lag thrown in for good measure
(probably a combination of the three), Super Mario came through for his adoring
tifosi, most of whom he’d just met, and took the stage two sprint—a long 800
meter drag seemingly custom made for him and his Domina Vacanze lead-out men.
Not only that, but he got to make friends with lovely Miss Macon on the
podium—just his kind of race.
The inclusion of CSC’s dynamic duo of Bobby Julich and Jens Voigt also raised
some eyebrows. When the winner of Criterium International attends a fairly new race and a
resurgent prodigal son, who recently won an extremely difficult ITT at the Tour
of the Basque Country, returns to the United States to race for the first time
in eight years, you just know that a good battle will ensue.
Still another great dynamic in the lead up to this race has been Chris
Horner’s complete and total dominance of the domestic scene in the U.S. to this
point in the season, along with the fact that he is defending champion from last
year, measured against the perceived strength of an Armstrong in Tour-prep mode
and the previously mentioned stars from CSC.
Let The GC Battle Begin!
Clearly on top of his Tour de France preparation, Lance bided his time until
Thursday’s morning stage to light it up. The finishing circuits in Rome were
much more difficult than most had anticipated they would be, due to the long
steep drag up 2nd Street Hill. Taking advantage of the fact that he is
seemingly always on the front at the crucial moments, and this time with
teammate extraordinaire, George Hincapie, as his lead-out man, Lance and select
company powered over the top and barreled down the false flat finish to take a
field sprint victory(!) in front of Ivan Dominguez and Ben Brooks—two field
Who would have ever expected that? Heads must have been shaking all over the
world. The six bonus seconds Lance earned with that victory also allowed him to
start after the other main favorites in the ITT, Chris Horner, Jens Voigt, and
Bobby Julich—bravo, Lance—that was some good thinking.
Gord Fraser and Bobby Julich chat prior to Stage 7. Photo by
That afternoon’s ITT held us all in rapt anticipation. One got the feeling
that Chris Horner was really going to unleash an excellent ride, and Jens Voigt
had been looking strong since the first stage. Also, Bobby Julich was on the
sharp end of the race during the previous stage’s finish, attentive as usual and
right behind Lance, et al, in sixth place. The atmosphere was that of a
pressure cooker. Men and women all across the land dropped whatever work they
were supposed to be doing and tuned in to whatever race ticker they could get
their greedy mitts on. One thing was for certain—this stage would separate the
pretenders from the contenders before the critical mountain stages of the next
As the finishers continued to come in, the time of tireless work horse Jason
McCartney (Health Net/Maxxis) started looking better and better. But then Brian
Vandborg (CSC) bested his time by three seconds. Soon after that, Chris Horner
(Webcor) blasted across the line with the new best time, despite the fact that
he only received his TT bike three days before this stage, going two better than
reigning Olympic ITT champion Viatcheslav Ekimov (USPS/Berry Floor).
Now it was time for the remaining big guns—Armstrong, Julich, and Voigt.
Anticipation mounted, as first Julich came in with a respectable but somewhat
disappointing time, given his recent win in the ITT at the Tour of the Basque
Country, slotting in just behind Horner, and then Voigt flew across the line
with the new best time by 23 seconds over Horner. The intermediate results had
Armstrong with the best time, and his finish didn’t disappoint, coming in a full
22 seconds faster than Voigt. Armstrong stamped his authority on the race with
two victories in one day, and was in the leader’s jersey.
On a tragic note, promising USA U23 rider Craig Lewis was hit by an errant
driver who ignored course marshals and entered the course. Thankfully, although
Craig’s injuries were serious, he is expected to make a full recovery and may
even be able to start riding again in a month.
Friday’s marathon haul was highlighted by Jason McCartney’s (Health Net/Maxxis)
heroic solo victory, after attacking his breakaway group on Wolfpen Gap. Postal
held all other breakaway attempts in check, and picked up the remnants of the
McCartney group by riding some stunning tempo on the front, with Antonio Cruz
and Mike Creed driving the train. Bobby Julich (CSC) and Chris Horner (Webcor)
managed to get off the front, but all escape attempts were neutralized; either
by the Blue Train, in the case of Horner; or the Man Himself, in the case of
Julich. Almost a minute after McCartney gave the biggest bad-ass victory salute
since Lance Armstrong’s famous gesture at Alpe D’Huez a few years ago, the rest
of the field came in almost fully intact, with Saturday’s decisive stage looming
in their immediate future.
The Ascension of Truth
This was to be the stage where the gauntlet would be thrown down, where
dreams would be realized or throttled, and where we would most likely find out
who the overall winner of the 2004 Tour de Georgia would be. Anyone who has
ever ridden one knows this for certain—there is no hiding on a mountain top
Postal rode tempo at the front for the run-in to Brasstown Bald, a true beast
of a climb that rises seemingly straight up from the valley after Young Harris,
Georgia. At times, the pitch of this road reaches over 20%. Many riders
resorted to 25, 26, or even 28 low gears in the back just to ascend this
monster, and Johan Bruyneel even compared it to the Angliru climb made (in)famous
in the Vuelta a Espańa for its treacherous incline. The stage was set for a
showdown, and a showdown is just what we got.
As the riders turned on to the climb proper, a relatively steady pace
prevailed, but then Cesar Grajales (Jittery Joe’s), who lives nearby and has
been training on this mountain for regularly three months in eager anticipation
of such an opportunity, jumped off the front, with Armstrong, Voigt, and Horner
Grajales kept gaining, and the race exploded from the front of the peloton to
the back. In the end, Grajales stayed away by 17 seconds, despite a sincere
effort on the part of Armstrong and Voigt to bridge, and GC hopefuls Horner (at
27 seconds) and Julich (at 1 minute 8 seconds) saw their last opportunity to get
any time back on Armstrong disappear. In the meantime, Grajales’ efforts saw
him deservedly rise to 6th on GC (seeing all of the support tape on his right
knee, I felt extremely sorry for his tendons after that climb).
The Grand Finale
As is often the custom with European stage races, stage seven of the Dodge
Tour de Georgia was a promenade of sorts, with the sprinter’s teams keeping
everything together for one more bunch kick to the line and Postal keeping tabs
on all of the GC threats who still might harbor some intention of sneaking away
. . . and Horner did try, but to no avail.
Never one to miss a shot at the line, Gord Fraser (Health Net/Maxxis) nabbed
his second stage victory, to go along with his excellent win in the first stage,
in front of Juan Jose Haedo (Colavita Olive Oil/Bolla Wines) and Mario Cipollini
himself, who apparently didn’t even realize that he had taken third and promptly
left. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mario has left the building!”
Apparently this mistake cost him about 200 Swiss francs and the prize money
for third place as well. No matter, he is reported to have said that he would
like to stay in the U.S. rather than go back to Italy . . .something about a
Miss Macon (only kidding, people).
The Stage 7 podium. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
Another sprinter who made his presence felt throughout this year’s edition of
the race was Ivan Dominguez (Colavita Olive Oil/Bolla Wines), who was always in
the hunt for the win, being beaten into second place by Gord Fraser on stage
one, by Mario Cipollini on stage two, and by Lance Armstrong (still can’t get
over that) on stage three, along with finishing fifth in the final stage,
showing remarkable tenacity and consistency.
It Can Be Done
This year’s edition of the Dodge Tour de Georgia had a little bit of
everything. The quality of the field, both European and domestic, was extremely
high—maybe even the best quality field that has ever been assembled in the
United States for a stage race. We saw the Tour de France champion victorious
in his home country for the first time since the Cascade Classic in 1998—and
let’s face it, folks, he absolutely lit it up on stages three and four with some
We watched the all time record holder for stage wins in the Giro d’Italia win
a stage and closely contest several more. We saw two of the top D1 teams in the
world, CSC and USPS/Berry Floor, duke it out for overall supremacy on U.S.
soil! On top of that, Health Net/Maxxis finally emerged, with three stage wins,
as the super domestic team that they were touted to be at the beginning of the
In terms of domestic GC achievements, Chris Horner led the way, with a very
impressive third overall; Cesar Grajales wasn’t far back, at sixth overall;
Scott Moninger (Health Net/Maxxis) made his long awaited for comeback to the top
level, at seventh overall; Eric Wohlberg (Sierra Nevada) defended his GC
position well after the ITT to finish 10th overall; and relative newcomer, all
arounder extraordinaire, and Daily Peloton favorite Adam Bergman (Jelly Belly/Aramark)
rode a consistent and strong race to finish 11th overall.
The domestic talent wasn’t overshadowed at this event by a long shot—given
the opportunity, in fact, they proved that they are up to the challenge of
facing the best of what Europe has to offer in terms of competition. In fact,
out of seven stages, D3 domestic teams nabbed four victories. That is not only
impressive, it’s outstanding.
The Jersey winners. Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.
The folks at the Dodge Tour de Georgia have proven that you can assemble all
of the essential elements to create a top flight stage race in the United
States, and the fact that they were able to due so with such skill in so little
time bodes well for the future of professional cycling in the States. They have
left us little doubt—it can be done.
Photo by Celia Cole/www.sportsshooter.com/celiacole.